Drone film sparks debate

25 October 2013

There was plenty to talk about following the screening of award-winning short film Drone at the Oxford Martin School earlier this week. Set in the near future, the film depicts a morning in the life of an office-based drone operator, played by Trainspotting’s Ewen Bremner, who dispatches death from his desktop computer.

A panel discussion followed the screening, with Daniel Jewel, who wrote and directed Drone, and his wife Ateh Jewel, one of its producers, debating the legal and ethical issues raised by the film with Dr Alexander Leveringhaus of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, and Dr Gilles Giacca of the Oxford Martin Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations, both of whom are working on research on drones.

In an interview before the screening, Daniel and Ateh Jewel told the School’s Communications Officer Sally Stewart about the making of Drone.

“I’d been reading a lot of articles about drones, and I had come to realise how the drone operators would just go home after a day’s work. It really struck me that it was just a commute away,” said Daniel. “I took that idea and put it into the near future, and the logical progression was that this kind of warfare could be taken over by private companies, and that it would almost become a nine-to-five job.” The script was written in two days while he was staying in a hotel overlooking LA airport. “Everything in the hotel was computerised – from the coffee machine to the lock on the door – and that all fed into the feel of the film.”

Researching the life of a drone operator using online military message boards led to the discovery that many were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, just like their colleagues out in the field. Ateh explained: “You go to work, kill someone’s father or mother and then you go home and play with your kids. You don’t have that down time that you would get if you were actually out there engaged in physical combat. It’s not compartmentalised.”

The research also brought them into contact with Dr Leveringhaus, who became an adviser on the film. “Although it’s set in the near future I wanted it to be analogous with what’s happening at the moment,” said Daniel, who studied modern history at Oxford. “It’s based in reality but it’s a heightened reality. I wanted the audience to be able to put themselves in the drone operator’s shoes.”

Dr Leveringhaus said one of the main issues with drones was the asymmetry between the people who carry out the strikes and their targets. “People find that very unsettling, and that might reveal a very general point about where warfare is moving in the 21st century – the concept of a fair fight stopped quite a long time ago. Another question is the legal ambiguity around the way this sort of technology is used. And then you have the democratic accountability: who actually knows what’s going on and where these weapons are being deployed? Drones could be a good hook to start a broader discussion about the future of warfare – perhaps this is the new way of war in our post-heroic, liberal, consumer society.”

Asked whether drone strikes could eventually be reciprocated, he said: “It could well happen, someone based in the UK carrying out strikes could be targeted on their way home from work. Under international law they are a combatant.”